Older Adults

Senior Day Programs, Retirement Communities and Nursing Homes

Actors demonstrate a "new product" that will enhance ageing!
Actors demonstrate a “new product” that will enhance ageing!

Older adults have a variety of needs which can be addressed through drama therapy. Isolation and loss are big issues: some older adults have experienced physical losses due to medical conditions, cognitive losses from Alzheimer’s Disease, or social losses through deaths of friends and family members and losses from retirement from their life’s employment. The developmental issue of old age is life review as the individual looks back over and evaluates what has been accomplished and learned over the course of the years (Erikson, 1997). Drama therapy can help older adults make new social connections, assist with reminiscence and meaning-making, and bring enjoyment of the present moment back to participants, even those who are losing touch with the world around them due to dementia.

Judy Holstein, RDT/BCT was the Program Manager for a senior day program for elders in Evanston, Illinois. In her drama therapy groups, she created dramatic opportunities to re-visit enjoyable times past and to celebrate the present. A session might involve creating humorous commercials for “products that help with an age-related issue,” or making up an original radio drama based on a favorite radio show like “The Shadow” or “Fibber McGee and Molly,” or re-enacting an important story from Jewish history, such as the Purim Story or the Passover Story.

But drama therapy is not just about the past; it can help process current events. Judy recalls several years ago a drama group was scheduled on the day after a gunman shot and killed a number of people at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles. The group members were very upset at the news reports and needed to process their anger, frustration, and helplessness. A number were survivors of the Holocaust or had relatives who had died in Hitler’s concentration camps, so this example of violence was very upsetting to them. Judy and her assistant Deb Mier, RDT, led the group in brainstorming the creation of a new and improved society, which they dubbed “Earth 2 – Dreamland.” In this place children with potential emotional problems would be identified and helped when they were young, so they wouldn’t grow up to become adults who hurt others. A council of young and old called The Care-Givers would work together to make sure that justice was served and needs were met for all. The group nominated their choices for this council, including 2 group members who were highly admired and respected, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sammy Sosa, Michael Jordan, and – to her great honor and surprise — Judy. Then they all stood together, held hands, and chanted “Let us begin!” This drama therapy ritual brought closure and relief to the group as they struggled to find meaning in an upsetting event and allowed them to continue to act as problem-solvers and care-givers.

Quality of life, an important concept in serving the needs of older clients, relates to “an individual’s personal sense of satisfaction with areas of life such as physical comfort, emotional well-being, and interpersonal connections.” (Kuhn, Origara, & Kasayka, 2000). Quality of life is particularly important in the lives of those who live in nursing homes or who are dealing with varying degrees of dementia. Drama therapy, with its emphasis on being “here and now,” on connecting with others, on communicating and making meaning together, has proven to contribute to quality of life. In 2001 a study using Dementia Care Mapping was conducted at the day program Judy Holstein managed. Six clients were observed doing a variety of activities on two different days. Residents had a “significant spike on a subscale of ‘Pleasure’ on the Affect Rating Scale and recorded the highest level of individual well-being scores during the 75-minute drama session. There was nothing to compare to these scores…except for the 30-minute music/dance session.” (Kuhn, 2001).

Aging Workshop with actors about to unveil a "new product" that will enhance ageing.
Aging Workshop with actors about to unveil a “new product” that will enhance ageing.

Drama therapy is also useful with fully-functioning older adults who want to continue to grow, enhance their talents, and give back to the community. Acting has been shown to enhance memory and cognitive abilities of elders (Noice, Noice, Perrig-Chiello & Perrig, 1999; Noice, Noice, & Staines, 2004; Noice & Noice, 2008). Mental and physical health improvements result when participants are immersed in drama, because it involves the challenging tasks of analysis, empathy, emotional integration, physical expression, and socialization, all of which jumpstart the growth of new neurons in the brain as well as growth in the number of synapses on older neurons (Cohen, 2006; Cohen, 2009; Noice, Noice, & Kramer, 2013). The physical, mental, emotional, and relational tasks involved while acting out a character encourage connections to be formed and exercises across the brain from the left to right hemisphere and from top to bottom of the brain, providing better overall brain functioning.

All of this can be done without requiring older actors to memorize lines. Drama can be created in a purely process, improvisational basis or plays can be devised without a script, or actors practice storytelling skills to share their experiences with younger generations.

© Copyright Sally D. Bailey, Registered Drama Therapist. All Rights Reserved.